Women can reclaim power over our bodies – by talking about them

I must have been four or five the first time I was told to “sit like a lady” – that is, with knees together. After that, no one needed to spell it out for me. A lady, I understood, was in full command of her body at all times.

This body never inconvenienced anyone by drawing attention to itself, or taking up too much space, or, God forbid, having any discernible odor. Like a dress worn for two hours on Easter Sunday, a lady’s body was to be admired, not lived in.

Once I grew up and left the south for good, the imperative to be ladylike began to feel like a relic from some antebellum past. This is the 21st century, after all, the era of Broad City and Two Dope Queens, and women are making jokes about period pants on television.

It wasn’t until I tried (and failed) to get pregnant that I began to understand that we’re still a long way from feeling comfortable talking about women’s bodies.

Last month I published an op-ed about the emotional and logistical labor of trying to conceive. The night before publication, I couldn’t sleep. I hated thinking about other people thinking about my body. For example, I know that, being a cis-woman, most people assume I have a cervix, but I also felt – in a deep, reflexive, culturally conditioned way – that one should never mention her cervix beyond the walls of the gynecologist’s office, much less in an international newspaper.

But there was a larger taboo I was violating, too: you’re not supposed to tell anyone you are trying to get pregnant. You’re definitely not supposed to tell anyone you’re failing. Up until a few weeks before I submitted the piece, I hadn’t even told my own mom.

After the article went up online, I wasn’t surprised to receive emails from strangers sharing their own experiences with infertility. But I was shocked by how many messages I received from friends and acquaintances: “Thank you for writing this. I’m going through the same thing. If you ever want to commiserate over coffee, let me know.” I had spent the past six months feeling frustrated by the weird and uniquely alienating secrecy around trying to conceive. But here, in my own circle, were so many others feeling the exact same way. I thought writing the article would leave me feeling vulnerable. Instead I felt powerfully connected to other women.

The whole experience has left me wondering: why are we supposed to be silent about this stuff in the first place?

Maybe the answer is simple: acknowledging the biological reality of a woman’s body is still profoundly unladylike.

Michelle Obama just made headlines for writing in her memoir about a miscarriage she had. Obama’s miscarriage isn’t news because it’s rare, it’s news because talking about miscarriage is so powerfully stigmatized. Doctors estimate that up to 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. I have four close friends who have miscarried in the past six months alone. (And those are just the ones I know of.)

But a 2015 survey found that 55% of adults believed that miscarriage was “uncommon”, defined in the study as less than 6% of all pregnancies. Not only that, participants believed – incorrectly – that a stressful event (76%), lifting heavy objects (64%), having an STI (41%) or having taken birth control pills in the past (22%) could cause miscarriage. An astounding 21% believed getting into an argument could terminate a pregnancy.

For the record, most miscarriages are caused by genetic abnormalities in the fetus. But I’m not surprised by this data. Shame and silence are powerful tools of misinformation.

Did you know that the exact shape of clitoris wasn’t discovered until 1998? Not only that, many major textbooks still don’t depict it accurately. Some leave the organ out of anatomical diagrams altogether. Imagining that happening to a penis.

Women are allowed to be sexual, but we’re not allowed to learn about the one organ in the human body whose sole function is pleasure. We’re encouraged to be mothers, but we’re expected to remain quiet about any attempts to become a parent that don’t succeed.

I used to think this silence around conception was for women: one could save oneself from the grief of miscarriage or infertility by just not acknowledging it had happened. But isn’t that a lot like saving yourself from pleasure by pretending your body isn’t made for it?

Yes, we have gotten better at talking about women’s bodies, but we’re still not good at it. We look at them, appraise them, blame them, decorate them and advertise with them, but we’re reluctant to think of them as distinct biological entities. (Like all things gender, this uneasy combination of objectification and ignorance is doubly true for trans bodies.)

For a long time I was OK with this silence. It felt comfortable. I remember watching that scene in Fried Green Tomatoes where the women’s group passes around hand mirrors to look at their vaginas and shrinking back in horror, knowing, in no uncertain terms, that such an activity was not for me. But now I understand: if we – that is our entire culture – can’t talk openly about our reproductive lives, we certainly can’t defend them.

Today, Brett Kavanaugh is sitting on the supreme court and women’s healthcare is in grave danger. The Ohio house of representatives has just passed a bill that would criminalize abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected – as early as six weeks – though according to the medical establishment, an embryo is not even classified as a fetus until around 11 weeks. Do you know the difference between an embryo and a fetus? I didn’t. But everyone should know – and we’re not likely to learn it in school.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the lives – and basic humanity – of women are at stake here: black women and indigenous women and trans women and rural women. The problem with being ladylike is that spending all your energy managing what other people think about women’s bodies makes it impossible to actually protect them.

The last two years, especially with the emergence of the #MeToo movement, have demonstrated the enormous power of finally speaking in loud and unapologetic ways about the things we’ve been taught not to speak about it. Keeping the vulnerable isolated and ashamed is the simplest way to maintain the status quo. Silence is powerful. But we can reclaim this power – all we have to do is start talking.